The truth about postpartum depression
By Diana Barnes, PsyD.
Wanting a baby, carrying a baby and having a baby is one of the most profound experiences in the life of a couple. It’s filled with awe, worry, anticipation, expectation and too often includes judgment! After more than 20 years working in the field of maternal mental health, I’m still struck by how the culture of motherhood sanctifies and idealizes mothers at the same time that it judges us, and too often harshly for those parents who are right out of the starting gate with a newborn.
As mothers, we are judged if we breastfeed or bottle feed, breastfeed too long or not long enough, use cloth diapers or pampers, sleep train or don’t, use jarred baby food or hand purée. If we stay at home to care full time for our children, we are considered uninteresting and if we pursue a career, we are judged as self-centered. The societal notion of the “maternal instinct”, that idea that you can know everything there is to know about your baby, the moment he/she is born, that you will always know exactly how to respond to that infant when you haven’t even gotten to know them is unfounded and unrealistic. Even the cultural belief that maternal care and tenderness is only an attribute of mothers and not fathers is false and misguided. And yet these myths drive the emotions and the behavior of both new mothers and fathers as they begin the unchartered journey of parenting.
I’m convinced that if anything leaves new mothers and even new dads more vulnerable to depression during the postpartum period, along with putting unnecessary strain on the partner relationship, it is the myths of motherhood. As couples come face to face with the differences between societal expectations and the stark realities of the early months postpartum, this can often lead to a downward spiral of worry, disappointment, feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.
The symptoms of depression look somewhat different in mothers than it does in Dads. For moms, you may experience uncontrollable crying without notice, you may find that you are unable to sleep. Postpartum depression actually feels like intolerable anxiety rather than like depression. You may be fearful about being at home alone or feeling so overwhelmed that you’re unable to cope. Some moms talk about feeling foggy and like they’re on autopilot or simply going through the motions of taking care of their babies. Dads who experience depression may withdraw, spend more time at work than at home, or find themselves increasingly more short-tempered.
Any wellness plan to ease the transition to parenthood needs to include a network of social support during the early weeks and months of the postpartum period. We are not supposed to go it alone. Starting in pregnancy, line up those who can help with cooking, cleaning, laundry, and errands after the baby is born. For those moms who are vulnerable to depression, bringing in someone to help during the night is not just recommended, it is a necessity. Getting out of the house at least once every day with or without baby is essential. Most important, talk with your obstetrician, pediatrician, birth or postpartum doula about your risks for a mood disorder in the postpartum period. Postpartum depression is the most common complication of pregnancy, and yet the easiest condition to treat.
Diana Barnes, Psy.D is a psychotherapist who specializes in women’s reproductive mental health and helping individuals and couples make an easier transition to parenthood. Her office is at Bini Birth. She is the co-author of The Journey to Parenthood: Myths, Reality and What Really Matters.